VIETNAM Captive to the whims of the river

 Emergency Response
 6th Oct 2009

by Julian Swallow, in Vietnam

In the rich world, homeowners lust after a water view. In a poor country like Vietnam, it’s a real estate feature with potentially lethal consequences.

In the early afternoon of 29 September, the eye of Typhoon Ketsana ripped through the central province of Quang Nam, buffeting communities with gusts of over 150 kilometres an hour. The road from the coastal city of Danang is littered with remnants of the storm; gashes in the asphalt where the road has given way, and billboards cut through as if by giant claws.

On Saturday 3 October, CARE International in Vietnam distributed relief items to 500 families in Que Xuan 1 commune, Que Son district: each family receiving 10 kg of rice, a box containing 24 packets of noodles, and 20 litres of water. While much needed, the relief is intended only to help them navigate the difficult first few days. The people of the commune will require additional support, and CARE, which has previous experience in working with typhoon affected communities in Vietnam, is keen to assist those affected and to reduce the impact of future disasters.

One of those affected by Typhoon Ketsana is Nguyen Thu Tung. She talks from beneath a wide brimmed conical hat, a red rim around her lips from a lifetime of chewing beetle-nut taking the place of lipstick. Her slight stature and gaunt physique bear witness to a lifetime of hard work and physical labour. Now 69 years old, she lives in a small house by the river, which she shares with her son and six other members of her family.

Floods are a part of life in Que Xuan 1 commune. Even when calm, the water laps at the back of Nguyen Thu Tung’s house. They are a family resigned to the whims of the river, but describe the flooding caused by Typhoon Ketsana as the worst they have experienced.

Ketsana’s rapid approach heralded three days of wind and rain that damaged property and caused the river to spill over its banks. With little time to prepare, Nguyen Thu Tung’s family retreated to a bed raised on chairs, a sort of life raft to which they clung for a day and a night, living on a diet of peanuts and dried noodles. They watched as the floodwaters rose and the wind tore at the roofing, the rubbing of sheets of tin as they strained against their bolts audible above the deafening roar of the winds.

Nguyen Thu Tung gestures to a slight stain on the wall, like the ring in a bathtub, which indicates the height of the floodwaters. She estimates that, at their peak, they reached 2.5 m at the back of the house, and 1.5 m at the front.

Today, the river has returned to normal; a sluggish brown that gives no hint of the damage it has wrought. Pockets of blue sky now stare through the gaps in the ceiling of her home, where tin sheeting is yet to be reapplied to a bamboo frame cut from their garden.

The house is in two parts: a one-room concrete hut facing the road gives way to a semi-enclosed bamboo courtyard beside the river. It is typical of those in the neighbourhood; well swept and maintained by its house-proud owners, but with scant living area or protection from the elements.

Like many households in Que Xuan 1, Nguyen Thu Tung and her family live a hand to mouth existence, subsisting on rice from a small plot of land donated by the government. The struggle for food is constant, the rice supplemented through the 45 USD her grandson earns as a casual labourer each month, and the occasional sale of livestock. Four chickens scurry around our feet, picking at what the river left behind. They are the remaining remnants of the twenty-five chickens and three pigs that used to roam the garden, most of which drowned in the flood. All up, Nguyen Thu Tung’s son estimates their losses at 600 USD: a fortune for the family.

The family has been without electricity for five days, but are able to cook on a wood stove. While drinking water comes from a tap, the well from which they draw their household water is contaminated. Nguyen Thu Tung’s grandson fills a bucket and lets it drain to demonstrate the sediment with which it is laced. The government will come and clean it with chemicals, but in the meantime they are drawing water from a neighbour’s well.

It is a sense of community that has kept them going. Nguyen Thu Tung’s grandson sports the scars from helping to repair an elderly neighbour’s roof, but is happy to have helped.

“We have worked together to overcome the typhoon,” he says.

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